In one of Doug Stowe’s books on box making, he wrote something that resonated with me. He said:
Hand tools are either a source of frustration or a source of great pleasure, depending on whose hands they are in. I relish the opportunity to work with hand tools but have had my share of frustration in learning to use them well.
So true. This frustration is what has kept me from totally embracing hand tools. Now that I have begun to change my ways; to embrace the use of hand tools, I have started upgrading my hand planes and chisels. As I use these tools, keeping them sharp is something I often think about. And this is where some frustration bubbles to the surface – really the feeling I get is more like apprehension.
Why? Well, like with many things in woodworking, there are a variety of ways to go about sharpening your tools; some of them involve a lot of money, and I’m not sure which one to use, and what if I made a big mistake, and when sharpening, will I do more damage than good, and – alright, deep breath, it will be OK.
Since I have a daughter in college, being wise with my woodworking dollars is terribly important these days. In an effort to better understand all the sharpening options, I bought Ron Hock’s The Perfect Edge. I did this mainly because of an interview I heard of Ron on a MWA podcast (listen to it here).
Ron’s book is very interesting. I suspect it could have easily come off as a technical publication since it contains a regular dose of things like CPM9V, Knoop Hardness, chemical vapor deposition and allotropes among many other terms. For the engineers among us, this book won’t disappoint. But for the rest of us, there also is a down to Earth approach to all the specialized information contained in The Perfect Edge. Ron’s humor is pleasant and it adds a nice element to the book.
The fundamentals of sharpening
The first part of The Perfect Edge helps organize your thoughts around the need to sharpen. It starts with a couple of questions; the first one being very basic: why sharpen? Ron says:
Sharpening is a fundamental woodworking skill – as vital to your woodworking success as any skill you apply to the wood. You weren’t born with this skill – it must be learned.
The next question: “What is steel?” Ron discusses everything from the history of steel to various types of steel. You’ll find information on high speed steel, carbide and hand tool steels like O1 and A2 among many others. If you want a good understanding of the types of steel used in woodworking along with their pros and cons, then this chapter is for you.
Up next are abrasives. You’ll learn about silicon dioxide, silicon carbide, aluminum oxide and a class known as super abrasives: diamonds and cubic boron nitride among others. Again, all of this sounds mighty technical, but the reading is really quite easy.
Ron continues with strops, sand paper, and the various bench stones all of which helped me get a handle on the tremendously wide variety of options available for sharpening.
So with this information, you may wonder what actually takes place when wood is cut? Again, a fundamental question, but the answer is very worthwhile to understand. Ron writes:
For some, the cutting is the woodworking, as any carver or turner can tell you. That understanding goes hand-in-hand with sharpening. Knowing how the fibers react to a sharp edge will remove some of the mystery about sharpening that edge.
And that is the point of buying this book: to remove some of the mystery; to remove some of the frustration. Ron discusses cutting and grain direction including end grain and cross grain. Very basic and important to understand.
With all this knowledge we come to the fundamentals of sharpening. The fifth chapter simply called “The Fundamentals” lays out the importance of the bevel angle and achieving a zero-radius on the cutting edge of the blade. Ron discusses why this is important and what must happen to gain a zero-radius.
Then come “the gadgets” to help you create the perfect edge: page after page of guides and wheels: sharpening systems available to help hold your blade at the perfect angle on a flat abrasive. Interesting.
On to specific tools
The rest of the book is dedicated to sharpening specific tools and for me, the tools of most interest are planes and chisels. This must be true for most woodworkers because the next two chapters address sharpening them.
Ron’s book becomes even more important here because he goes into great detail not only on the process for sharpening a plane blade, but also an overview of the need for different blade configurations: back bevels, blade thickness, low angle blades, etc. He then lays out the steps required for a sharp edge like flattening the back, establishing the bevel and hollow grinding. Of interest to me are things like free-hand honing and cambered irons – things I have seen or read about and things I wonder if I should do.
Up next is chisel sharpening and as you might expect, the process is somewhat similar, but Ron gives unique tips for gaining a perfect edge on a chisel. Subsequent chapters deal with scrapers, handsaws, carving and turning tools, axes and adzes, knives, drill bits and finally power tools. The chapter on power tools even includes sharpening chain saw blades.
One last section of the book includes microscopic photos of blades after processing through various sharpening media.
There is a reason why Christopher Schwarz includes The Perfect Edge in a grouping of the 15 must-have books for woodworkers. I certainly could gain some sharpening knowledge by reading disjointed posts on various woodworking blogs, but as publications go, Ron’s book brings a vast amount of information together in one place. His deep knowledge of metal itself and his years of making plane blades makes him an important figure in woodworking. Who knew he could write well too? I am glad this book came to my attention and I know I’ll be returning to it for sharpening tips for many years to come.
The Perfect Edge by Ron Hock is available from Popular Woodworking Books by clicking here. I purchased my copy at my local Woodcraft store.